What's The Word? And it ain't Thunderbird!
December 2, 2007 8:54 AM   Subscribe

Lit-crit/what the hell is the word I'm looking for?

I really like the novels of John Sayles, Mike Magnusson, Chris Offutt, Tom Perotta, Moredcai Richler and early Richard Price. These authors vary widely in background and subject matter, but their prose style is very similar in a way that I can't quite put my finger on. I'm talking prose style (especially the way they write dialogue) as opposed to subject matter or their own personal background here.

I keep wanting to say 'conversationalist' or 'naturalist' but those aren't the right terms, are they? What's the word I'm looking for, the technical term a literature professor would use?

Bonus question: any female writers who write in a similar style? I'm looking to broaden my horizons.
posted by jonmc to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I only know one of those writers. Are you referring to 'skaz,' the adoption of a colloquial speech as the voice of the narrator?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:02 AM on December 2, 2007

p.s. One things about literary terms-- each school of theory has its own. So it is unlikely that you will get any one term that all mefites will agree with.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:04 AM on December 2, 2007

Response by poster: I've never heard the term 'skaz' but that's only part of it, gesamtkunstwerk, and I'm sure there'll be differences of opinion. I just write about this style of writing a lot and I'm sick of fumbling for terms or overelaborating.
posted by jonmc at 9:14 AM on December 2, 2007

Response by poster: (you could add Tim Sandlin to the list, if that helps.)
posted by jonmc at 9:15 AM on December 2, 2007

Nothing wrong with "colloquial", either, gesamtkunstwerk.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2007

Skaz is more than colloquial-- it's language that is rooted in a specific dialect and strata of society.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 10:50 AM on December 2, 2007

I don't know these authors well, but it looks (from the prose samples I found on Google Books) that they all have a paratactic prose style. Parataxis is marked by the absence of prepositions and semantic hierarchy. It feels flat and matter-of-fact and is most well-known as Hemingway's style. Its opposite is hypotaxis, a prose style marked by syntactic hierarchy and exemplified by, say, Proust.

Analyzing Prose is a really fabulous book, recently out in an updated second edition, which has an extended and very helpful discussion of hypotaxis vs. parataxis. If you want to learn how to clearly and accurately describe prose styles, I can't recommend this book highly enough.
posted by ourobouros at 10:57 AM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Skaz is more than colloquial-- it's language that is rooted in a specific dialect and strata of society.

It's also specifically rooted in Russian, and if you used it with anyone unfamiliar with Russian formalist criticism they wouldn't know what the hell you were talking about. (Start of a comprehensive article, informative in itself.)

I'd go with "conversational," a good catchall term.
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: ouroborous: I undertand what you're getting at but none of these authors have that minimalist style that I associate with Hemingway. They're way more hyperactive and neurotic.
posted by jonmc at 11:40 AM on December 2, 2007

Response by poster: For those unfamiliar with the authors:

opening from Richard Price's Ladies Man:

"So there we were. Me, I was doing my usual hundred and fifty sit-ups. My feet were jammed under the couch for leverage and I was holding a five-pound barbell behind my head like an iron halo. La Donna was in her black Danskins sitting by the wall doing dancercizes. I had a stomach that looked like six miniature cobblestones. LaDonna was so limber that standing without bending her knees, she could work her head down between her legs and kiss her own ass. How very nice for the both of us. She was a twenty-eight-year-old bank clerk and would-be singer; I was a thirty-year-old door-to-door salesman and we both walked around all day like Back to Bataan.

When I was doing my sit-ups I liked to watch TV-Lucy or Fonzie, whatever reruns I could get a hold of. That was not allowed when LaDonna was around. She needed silence to stand there, pull one foot backward, up over her shoulder and tap the base of her skull with her heel. I could have worked out when she wasn't around, but six weeks before, on a Sunday morning after she finished her dancercizes, she came over to where I was and just sat on it. There are aborigines in New Guinea who have been squatting by an airstrip since 1943 because a plane once landed and dropped off food. Sic weeks ain't that long. Meanwhile, if I needed extra money I could do exhibitions, have two-ton semis drive over my stomach at state fairs."

from Tim Sandlin's Social Blunders:

" 'Traumatic events always happen exactly two years before I reach the maturity level to deal with the' I said, just to hear myself say it out loud.

'Two years from now I could handle my wife running off with an illiterate pool man. Two years from now, I will have the emotional capacity to survive another divorce'

Hints that I might not survive the crisis cut no slack with my daughter. In fact, I wasn't even certain she had heard my little speech. Shannon seemed totally absorbed in aiming a garden hose at the grill of her Mustang. As she rinsed soap off the gleaming chrome her eyes held a distracted softness that reminded me more than somewhat of the softness her mother's eyes used to take on following an orgasm. Now there's an awful thought. According to my two-year theory, a day would come where I could accept my daughter having orgasms, but for now I'd rather drink Drano."

These passages are very similar.
posted by jonmc at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2007

I read ladies man for the first time last week (and watched a Richard Price episode of The Wire last night), and I'd agree that conversational is the word. It might be giving you pause because its such a broad term, but i don't think there's a more exact word, just other words to add to it (raw, uninhibited, clever, etc.)
posted by Bookhouse at 12:14 PM on December 2, 2007

don't know what this style's called, Jon, but thread makes me strongly suspect you might enjoy Richard Lange's short story collection, Dead Boys. (disclosure: Rich is a friend.)
posted by scody at 12:38 PM on December 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't speak for the rest of that list, but Mordecai Richler is widely credited with being the first fully modern Canadian novelist, owing to his use of colloquial/vernacular language, naturalistic dialogue, realistic urban settings, strong point of view and unreliable narrators - there's even a thin postmodern veneer on Barney's Version.

Thankfully (to my mind), Richler never dove completely into the Joyce/Faulkner swamp of near-incomprehensible high modernism, nor into the intertextual look-at-me parlour trickery of postmodernism. Dunno if this helps - I actively avoided LitCrit in university because I found it spoiled my appreciation of actually reading books.

And if you haven't read Barney's Version yet - do. Now. It is Richler's masterwork, and for my money possibly the finest and certainly the most flat-out entertaining Canadian novel yet written.
posted by gompa at 3:38 PM on December 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: gompa: if you like Richler, you'll love Price. He's like Mordecai's bastard son from the Bronx. Start with Ladies Man. Email me your thoughts on it, I'd be interested.
posted by jonmc at 3:49 PM on December 2, 2007

You might enjoy the writing of Sheri Holman.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:57 PM on December 2, 2007

I keep wanting to say 'conversationalist' or 'naturalist' but those aren't the right terms, are they? What's the word I'm looking for, the technical term a literature professor would use?

jon, I believe the term you're looking for is social realist.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 4:21 PM on December 2, 2007

(I came in here because there was a best answer marked and I was curious, but I see that the answer so marked does not actually answer the question (good a comment as it may be). That's not nice!)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:23 PM on December 2, 2007

Response by poster: jon, I believe the term you're looking for is social realist.

Not by wikipedia's definition
posted by jonmc at 5:14 PM on December 2, 2007

"Hard-boiled"? The term usually refers to detective/cop fiction but the style is similarly tough and flat.
posted by Quietgal at 6:03 PM on December 2, 2007

Best answer: This is one of the reasons that lit-crit as a field is taking a beating right now. The masses are beginning to realize that the lit-crit "scholars" in the past have hijacked the defining of good literature. They are more interested in the dissection of a good piece than its actual soul or essence, and as Wordsworth said, "we murder to dissect."

Thankfully, times are a-changin'. The number of lit-crit jobs at universities have dwindled. People are starting to realize the true "usefulness" of the field. On the contrary, writing jobs are on the up.

Perhaps in your quest for meaning, you are asking the wrong question. Don't worry so much about what the literary pundits call a piece. Instead, ask yourself what a good common sense description would be. How would you describe the writing voice in question to a friend? Let that description suffice as being as important as any lit-crit "middle manager" of the language could offer.

I'll throw my hat in the ring as well. Regarding these novels, how about "novels with an informal contemporary narrator and an edgy voice." Good luck with your quest.
posted by boots77 at 6:37 PM on December 2, 2007

Response by poster: boots77, I pretty much agree with you (which is why I marked it as best answer), I don't want to dissect these authors that I love (although I love talking about them) I was just looking for a quickie shorthand term to describe them to people when I try and get people to read them.
posted by jonmc at 7:14 PM on December 2, 2007

jon, from that Wiki definition, talking about Social Realists: "They focused on the ugly realities of contemporary life and sympathized with working-class people, particularly the poor. They recorded what they saw (“as it existed”) in a dispassionate manner."

I saw similarities between this description and the authors you listed above. (as well as, say, Raymond Carver).

But maybe the "dispassionate" part is the problem. That's not a very good definition. I consider "Last Exit To Brooklyn" to be one of the finest Social Realist novels ever written, and there ain't nothin' dispassionate about that book.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 2:02 AM on December 3, 2007

I, too, would've called it "naturalist." A literature professor (which I was, at one time) would likely use that term only when referring ot a specific period, but I think it applies here, too. Literary realism tends to be a bit less gritty.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:46 AM on December 3, 2007

« Older foxdog!   |   How to ride a single speed on an indoor trainer Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.